This week’s entry: List Of Sitcoms Notable For Negative Reception
What it’s about: While Wikipedia is not shy about calling out some films as the worst ever made, it’s more delicate with the small screen, merely saying the 79 shows on this list were so poorly received as to make them “notable.”
Strangest fact: Usually these shows consist of critical darlings kept alive by a small, devoted group of fans, but sometimes the reverse happens. Such was the case with Arli$$, HBO’s much-maligned long-running series about a sports agent played by Robert Wuhl. While critics consistently called it one of the worst shows on television, enough HBO subscribers paid for the premium channel solely for Arli$$ that the network was able to justify seven seasons—the longest-running show on the list by a country mile, along with Saved By The Bell: The New Class, which shockingly also ran for seven years.
Biggest controversy: Since this column has already covered Heil Honey I’m Home, and this website had plenty of say about Dads when it aired, let’s talk about Off Centre. Fresh off the success of American Pie, the Weitz brothers tried to bring their ribald comedy to TV with a show about a womanizing Brit who comes to New York to share an apartment with a directionless idealist. The setup was standard sitcom fare; the content was not. An infamous memo from the WB’s Standards And Practices Department asked the show to:
“reduce and/or modify the significant number of uses of ‘penis,’ ‘testicles,’ ‘foreskin,’ as well as euphemisms for the same, such as ‘your thingie’… ‘covered wagon,’ ‘unit,’ ‘turtleneck,’ ‘little fella,’ ‘anteater,’ ‘diddy,’ ‘cloaking device,’ and ‘my pig is still snuggly, wrapped in his doughy blanket.’”
Clearly a great moment in the history of television. Surprisingly, all five of the show’s leads went on to successful careers in TV and film, with eventual movie stardom for wacky neighbor John Cho.
Thing we were happiest to learn: The cast of Friends bounced back from some pretty dire work. In 1993, Bronson Pinchot, fresh off of Perfect Strangers, chose The Trouble With Larry as a starring vehicle. The premise is a story as old as time: A man is dragged into the jungle by baboons while on his honeymoon, is presumed dead, and returns home 10 years later to find his wife has remarried. Rather than put the whole ugly incident behind him, he falls in love with her sister, who despises him. Courteney Cox had the thankless role of the sister for three glorious episodes before the show was cancelled. (Pinchot’s next starring TV role was the fiasco Meego, in which he played a wacky alien who tormented a post-Jerry Maguire Jonathan Lipnicki and post-Pete & Pete, pre-Buffy Michelle Trachtenberg, as well as the audience, for six unwatchable episodes.)
And while there have been successful film-to-TV adaptations, 1990’s Ferris Bueller was not one of them. In John Hughes’ film, Matthew Broderick manages to expertly walk the line between charming and insufferable, while TV Ferris, referred to here as “smirking” Charlie Schlatter, dove headfirst into the latter. It didn’t help that the show debuted the same month as a far better (if unofficial) Bueller adaptation, the charming Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. Ferris only lasted 13 episodes, but the actress who played Ferris’ sister Jeannie would go onto bigger and better things; two years later, Jennifer Aniston would land her career-defining role in Leprechaun.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Even TV legends can bomb. In 1974, Norman Lear ruled network television with All In The Family, Sanford And Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Maude. By 1975, he had added another hit sitcom, One Day At A Time, and groundbreaking satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in 1976. So for 1977, Lear pitched his most ambitious satire yet, All That Glitters, a show that took on sexism by creating a world where women were hard-driving executives and men were homemakers or put-upon secretaries. However high the concept, the execution was lacking. Time called the show “embarrassingly amateurish,” calling out the writing, acting, and directing. The Wall Street Journal granted that the performers were talented, but that, “its characters are not people at all, merely composites of the least attractive characteristics of each sex.” It was cancelled after 13 weeks—an eternity by today’s standards, but a short run for the ’70s.
(Side note: Even the show’s theme song was a miscalculation. It was a last-minute replacement, which one reviewer called “blasphemous” for suggesting that, in the world of the show, God created Eve first. The original song written as the theme—“You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”—was recorded instead by its co-writer, Neil Diamond. Diamond’s former high school classmate Barbra Streisand covered it, and a Louisville DJ spliced the two versions together into a duet. The audience response was so enthusiastic that Diamond and Streisand recorded an official duet, which became a No. 1 hit.)
Also noteworthy: Transatlantic remakes are a dicey proposition. For every All In The Family or Sanford And Son (Lear adopted them from Britcoms Till Death Do Us Part and Steptoe And Son, respectively), there are flat-out disasters. In 2003, NBC decided to remake Coupling, the BBC’s answer to Friends. But somehow NBC’s version of the BBC’s version of NBC’s biggest hit didn’t work for NBC. Despite using the same scripts for the first few episodes, the same jokes that killed with British accents fell completely flat with American ones. The actors lacked chemistry and comic timing, and the show, in the words of NBC’s then-president Jeff Zucker, “just sucked.” It was canned after four episodes.
Mistranslation goes both ways, as things went poorly when Britain tried to remake That ’70s Show. Apart from renaming a few characters and changing some pop culture references, Days Like These used virtually identical scripts, but none of the British cast had the raw thespian talent of Ashton Kutcher, so after 10 episodes, the network cancelled the show and replaced it with… That ‘70s Show.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Of the numerous terrible reviews cited on this page, two of them are from beloved pop culture website The A.V. Club, who called One Of The Boys a “truly atrocious waste of talent,” and Work It “fascinatingly awful.” For those unfamiliar with the site, it has covered pop culture in print and online since 1993, and you’re reading it at this very moment. Wikipedia covers various staff changes (through mid-2015), lists current and former columns (including this one!), and compiles our year-end bests in one convenient place.
Further down the Wormhole: The United States is well represented on the list, as we produce a disproportionate share of the world’s television programs. This country also made a disproportionate share of manufactured goods upon the invention of the assembly line, in which several workers each attach one piece of a product, instead of each worker creating their own finished whole (not unlike the way we make most TV shows, as opposed to the single-creator-driven model favored in the U.K. and only recently gaining ground here with shows like Louie, Girls, and Master Of None). Standardizing and sharing labor made much of the Industrial Revolution of a century ago possible, and has enabled macro-engineering on a vast scale. We’ll look at some grandiose projects, real and imagined, next week.